The Science of Achievement Applied to Sales Success

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 @ 09:11 AM

outliersI finally read Malcolm Gladwell's great book, Outliers: The Story of Success, where he relates the histories of some wildly successful and unsuccessful stars and common folk, and the underlying reasons for their achievements.

He concludes that while they were all talented, it wasn't the talent alone that made them successful as much as it was the opportunities of timing, parenting, location and the time and desire to practice and perfect their various skills.  He showed how intelligence only mattered up to a point, and only if it was practical intelligence; people skills,  problem solving skills, and the ability to advocate for one's self.

As powerful as all that was, there was one paragraph that stood out for me.  Regardless of their career path, those who were THE MOST SUCCESSFUL had two things in common:

  1. 10,000 hours of "practice"
  2. 10 years to perfect their skills.

The 10,000 hours/10 years discovery is not a surprise to me.  If I think back to the many sports and business biographies I read over the years, the subjects share as a common theme this single minded focus on that one thing they loved to do more than anything and the days, weeks and months that were consumed in the pursuit of perfecting their craft.  I have always suggested that it took about 750 hours of practice to become effective at selling - to learn, understand, internalize, own and apply the teachings of sales.  But that only gets you to the top 26%.  To become the best of the best, 10,000 hours and 10 years sounds about right.  It was certainly the case for me, and most of the great salespeople I know today.  At 10,000 hours you don't have to think about it - at all - and you can recognize anything and everything that is taking place around you and properly respond to it.

Many salespeople have been in sales for ten plus years and aren't the best of the best.  They're not even in the top 26%.  I will use science to explain this.  If we go back and look at Objective Management Group's data on the 500,000 salespeople that have been assessed so far, we find that 22% are not trainable (no incentive to change) and another 10% shouldn't even be in sales.  So that leaves 42% unaccounted for.  What about them? I dug through the data and found that:

24% have been in sales for less than 5 years. 

21 % have been in sales for between 5-9 years. 

Of the 55% that have been in sales for at least 10 years, only 20% are in the top 26%.  That means 80% of the ten year group, despite their 10,000 hours, have not become remarkable.  The data shows that they have not been an example of sales best practices for their time in sales.  Their weaknesses and skill gaps are well documented and certainly part of the problem. Here are ten possible explanations for why that is so:

  1. lack of commitment to sales success
  2. they didn't practice (the rule, not the exception)
  3. lack of training (especially in small businesses)
  4. low expectations
  5. lack of single minded pursuit of sales excellence
  6. not exposed to best practices, including having a formal, structured sales process
  7. lack of accountability (less than 15%  of sales managers hold salespeople accountable)
  8. didn't work where there was a strong sales culture (very common)
  9. ineffective sales coaching (84% of sales managers just plain suck!)
  10. not aware that the world of selling has changed so dramatically in the past 5 years


How many of your salespeople are consumed in the pursuit of perfecting their sales effectiveness and what have you done about it? How many of these steps have you taken to develop a sales force with more of the top 26% and fewer of the bottom 74%?

  • evaluated the sales force
  • created a formal, structured, best practices sales process
  • developed a best-practices sales recruiting process
  • created a staged, criteria based pipeline
  • developed metrics to keep the pipeline filled, moving and drive revenue
  • close the skill gaps
  • overcome the weaknesses
  • develop sales management's ability to coach and hold salespeople accountable
  • use of sales 2.0 tools
  • ongoing sales training
  • update the compensation plan
  • use of incentives
  • update selection criteria
  • improve ability to on board new salespeople

These are just some of the areas in which your salespeople, systems and processes can be improved rather than simply hoping that everyone will know what they're supposed to do and get it done.

Topics: sales assessment, Dave Kurlan, sales force evaluation, sales management, sales achievement, sales selection, sales success

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Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Sales Thought Leader,  Dave Kurlan's Understanding the Sales Force Blog has earned medals for the Top Sales & Marketing Blog award for nine consecutive years. This article earned a Bronze Medal for Top Sales Blog post in 2016, this one earned a Silver medal for 2017, and this article earned Silver for 2018. Read more about Dave

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